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"In the beginning there was chaos, and football was without form"

So begins Inverting the Pyramid, in a chapter titled From Genesis to the Pyramid, and the evocation of the Old Testament is pretty appropriate in a book that aims to be nothing less than a biblical account of the development of soccer tactics. In some ways, the project has a tinge of lunacy to it. Mr. Wilson seems to assume that the reader will recognize players and coaches ranging from Uruguay to Hungary geographically and from the December 8, 1863 meeting at Freemason's Tavern in London that banned the use of hands in "The Simplest Game" to a 2007 lecture in Belgrade temporally. There can't be more than a tiny handful of obsessives worldwide who can and will follow everywhere the author leads.

But, for the general reader there is a unifying theme being illustrated that makes it possible to follow along, however confusedly at times. The earliest origins of the game the rest of the world knows as football were in a medieval British sport that Mr. Wilson refers to as "the mob game," which "essentially involved two teams each trying to force a roughly spherical object to a target at opposite ends of a notional pitch." As would befit what seems to have been little more than dismounted buzkashi, all of the action and, therefore, all of the men on the field clustered about the "object," not unlike what happens if you put little kids on a soccer field with a ball today. The pyramid of the title was the dominant early formation that grew out of the codification of rules and the more rigorous organization of sides. It was a 2-3-5, meaning: two defenders; three "midfielders"; and five men up front trying to score. Actually, even the central midfielder in the pyramid was an offensive as much as a defensive weapon.

If we recall that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction, we will not be surprised to find that by the end of the book, the formation that has evolved and that Mr. Wilson suggests is the near universal future is a 4-6-0, a set devoid of forwards. Of course, as defensive as that is it isn't quite a 10-0-0, so it's fair to wonder whether we aren't still a ways from the End of soccer History. But what the book charts is the ebb and flow over time between more offense-oriented sets and more defense-oriented and not just the tactical reasons for the changes but the aesthetic tug of war between those who think the game ought to be beautiful and to flow as it only can when going forward versus those who think the point is to win trophies and artistry be damned. One would like to think that spectators, if nothing else, will prevent the game from reaching its logical conclusion, in an entirely defensive shell. Such would render the often unwatchable actually torturous.

At any rate, like Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach, this is a book to be read as much for the author's virtuoso performance as anything. Even when you get lost in the thickets you can't help but marvel at Mr. Wilson's command of soccer arcana and his passion for his subject. Learning something along the way is kind of gravy.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Sports (General)
Jonathan Wilson Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Jonathan Wilson
    -CONTRIBUTOR PROFILE/ARCHIVES: Jonathan Wilson (The Guardian)
    -ARCHIVES: The Question (Jonathan Wilson, The Guardian)
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Jonathan Wilson (Orion Books)
    -ESSAY: How not to look like a prize idiot: the uncertain journey of a shortlisted author (Jonathan Wilson, 11/25/08, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The Question: why is full-back the most important position on the pitch?: All the hype in football is about forwards and fantasistas, but increasingly the battle is won and lost among the full-backs (Jonathan Wilson, 3/25/09, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The Question: is the box-to-box midfielder dead?: In the latest in our series analysing football tactics, we look at where the Robsons, Keanes and Matthaus's have gone in the modern game (Jonathan Wilson, 4/22/09, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The Question: why has 4-4-2 been superseded by 4-2-3-1?: The coming of 4-2-3-1 was a natural progression from 4-4-2, and in the last five years nearly all tactical innovations are developments of the formation (Jonathan Wilson, 12/18/08, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The Question: is 3-5-2 dead? (Jonathan Wilson, 11/19/08, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The end of forward thinking: Football without strikers? It seems unthinkable, but Carlos Alberto Parreira, who led Brazil to World Cup glory in 1994, predicts 4-6-0 as the formation of the future (Jonathan Wilson, 6/08/08, The Observer)
    -ESSAY: The Forgotten Story Of ... Spain 4-3 England: Eighty years ago this week, England lost for the first time to continental opposition. It was a historic moment but shouldn't have been unexpected (Jonathan Wilson, 5/14/09, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of THE NECESSITY OF ANTI-SEMITISM. By Frederic Raphael (Jonathan Wilson, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of BETWEEN "RACE" AND CULTURE. Representations of "the Jew" in English and American Literature. Bryan Cheyette (Jonathan Wilson, Times of London)
    -PROFILE: How it all began (Ismail Vedat and Katie Weatherall on 19th of November 2008, Arts London)
    -INTERVIEW: Forza Futbol Episode 58: Jonathan Wilson (Forza Futbol, April 2nd, 2009)
    -BOOK LIST: The Ultimate Guide To Football Books (The Gaffer, June 27, 2009, EPL Talk)
    -BOOK LIST: The Best Football Books - Part II (Subhankar Mondal, 7/05/09,
    -ARCHIVES: Jonathan Wilson (Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson (Harry Pearson, When Saturday Comes)
    -REVIEW: of Inverting the Pyramid (Peter Watts, Time Out London)
    -REVIEW: of Inverting the Pyramid (Richard Moore, Scotland on Sunday)
    -REVIEW: of Inverting the Pyramid (Tom Ewing, Pitchfork)
    -REVIEW: of Inverting the Pyramid (Gracchi, Westminster Wisdom)
    -REVIEW: of inverting the Pyramid (Pequito, Ole Ole)
    -REVIEW: of Inverting the Pyramid (Phil, There is No Original Name)
    -REVIEW: of Inverting the Pyramid (Mouth of the Mersey, Pseuds' Corner)
    -REVIEW: of Behind the Curtain by Jonathan Wilson (Kieran Grant, Western Mail)

Book-related and General Links:

-PODCAST: The End of the Beautiful Game? How the Analytics Revolution Is Changing Soccer: Ryan O'Hanlon in Conversation with Andrew Keen on Keen On (Keen On, October 18, 2022)
    -ESSAY: England manager Fabio Capello dissects modern changes to football tactics (Patrick Barclay, 01 Nov 2008, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Football’s data delusion: A new book by Rory Smith looks at why the English Premier League is still searching for its Moneyball moment. (Simon Kuper, New Statesman)